This op-ed was written as part of a two-sided debate series. The opposing argument can be found here.
Through marriage, the state wields the power to join two people in a bond capable of lasting a lifetime and leaving an enduring legacy. The institution of marriage bestows the authority to make life or death decisions for a dying spouse, to gain access to significant financial benefits and most importantly serves as a symbol that the government has legitimized a union. With such significance, it is no surprise that marriage has been the subject of an ongoing national debate, most recently exhibited in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. Obergefell overturned centuries of antiquated, unjust and unconstitutional state bans on gay marriage, finally devolving the right to marriage to same-sex couples. In granting those couples access to one of society’s most profound institutions, the Court upheld a core constitutional guarantee: equal protection under the law.
Obergefell continued a legacy of Supreme Court cases within the past century that extended the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. For decades, the 14th Amendment’s groundbreaking language, “nor shall any State … deprive any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” represented a promise made by the government but not kept. The amendment was ratified into law after the Civil War but was ignored by a Congress and judiciary unsympathetic to civil rights.
This changed in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which found that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” striking down segregation in public schools and recognizing for the first time that the 14th Amendment prevented state-sanctioned discrimination. The Court further applied this logic in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state bans on interracial marriage and the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state sodomy bans. Thus Obergefell was not an outlier, but a much-needed continuance of our nation’s progress towards equality, as we slowly extend the constitutional promise of equal protection to those of all races, religions and sexual orientations.
Just as Brown v. Board was met by a campaign of “massive resistance” in the South half a century ago, Obergefell was greeted harshly by opponents, such as when Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis infamously refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs. Certainly, there are those holding genuine religious values opposing same-sex marriage; however, as repeatedly established in previous jurisprudence, the government must show a legitimate societal interest when establishing laws that infringe upon fundamental rights. By lacking any such basis, bans on same-sex marriage violate this tenet. Religious beliefs may serve as justification for law in theocracies, but they should not in a country with a separation between church and state.
Therefore, while those who oppose same-sex marriage have the right to espouse their own beliefs, they should not have the right to deny same-sex couples access to the institution of marriage. Same-sex couples must be afforded the same protection as opposite-sex couples to marry who they choose, whether they reside in socially liberal California or deeply conservative Alabama.
Ultimately, the failure of some states to provide constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law meant that the Supreme Court was justified in striking down bans on same-sex marriage. We must continually reevaluate and reinterpret our laws to ensure that all Americans are treated equitably as our society continues to progress, recognizing where we have applied faulty logic to justify laws that undermine constitutional protections, as was the case in same-sex marriage bans. As Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the majority opinion for Obergefell, “it would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”
To allow state legislatures to deny these same-sex couples access to a core institution would be a violation of our Constitution and system of government. While this country’s laws are subject to majority rule, the constitutional rights of its citizens are not. Just as the Supreme Court justly recognized its previous errors and struck down laws legitimizing white supremacy in the 1950s, it made the correct decision in striking down irrational and discriminatory laws banning same-sex marriage 65 years later. To call the Court’s decision in this case undemocratic would be a fundamental mischaracterization as Obergefell reaffirmed the essence of what the United States is and always has been: a constitutional democracy.
Andrew Kliewer (20C) is from Dallas.